Charley Patton, father of the delta blues, was born in Mississippi in 1891. He only lived until 1934, when he died of heart failure, but in that short 40-odd years, he transformed American music. According to this site, he recorded 57 tracks between 1929 and 1934, including the great “High Water Everywhere.”
Charley’s influence spread far beyond the Mississippi delta, reaching up into Minnesota and grabbing hold of a young Robert Zimmerman. Many, many years later, an older, more grizzled Bob Dylan would record a song that’s a bit of an ode to Charley Patton, “High Water (for Charley Patton)” off his album Love and Theft. The name and basic conceit came from “High Water Everywhere,” written about the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.
So high the water was risin’ our men sinkin’ down
Man, the water was risin’ at places all around
Boy, they’s all around
It was fifty men and children come to sink and drown
Oh, Lordy, women and grown men drown
Oh, women and children sinkin’ down
Lord, have mercy
I couldn’t see nobody’s home and wasn’t no one to be found
Charley Patton experienced the flood firsthand, and his original song is a harrowing exploration of that experience. Dylan’s own lyrical re-imagining takes that experience and renders it in a more expressionist way.
High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down
Folks lose their possessions and folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook, it broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”
It’s tough out there
High water everywhere
Dylan’s words are no less impactful for their more esoteric tone. He cracks a few jokes, throws in a few asides to the audience, and generally keeps things humming along. But there’s one particular pair of lines in the song, a moment that sticks out in my mind or maybe stabs into it like an ice pick of thought. I can’t shake it. It’s:
“Don’t reach out for me, ” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It gives me chills, that couplet. It feels like such a universal sentiment. With my anxiety and depression, it sometimes feels difficult to keep my own head above water, let alone help those around me. “Don’t reach out for me, can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?” It’s overwhelming sometimes. Does that stop me from reaching to help others, or reaching out for help myself? No. We’re all drowning. If I happen to drown but help you survive, isn’t that a worthy sacrifice?